For better and for worse, many video game players are drawn to novelty. The biggest change Nintendo has introduced with the Wii U is a touch-screen controller, called the GamePad, that resembles an iPad with thumbsticks and buttons. In the games that are included in the Nintendo Land anthology that comes with the $350 deluxe edition Wii U — the $300 basic edition is, in my judgment, not worth getting — the GamePad is often used for two-screen gaming, in which the touch screen displays different information from what you see on your TV. The player holding the GamePad can sometimes see things that are invisible to other players.
But asymmetrical, two-screen gaming isn’t the only draw. The GamePad also enables a variety of styles that are familiar to people who play games on their smartphones. Quick finger-swipes on the touch screen might move a character across the television screen. Tilting the controller can direct a racecar along a track full of obstacles.
The Wii U is backward-compatible, meaning that most of the games you bought for the original Wii can be played on it. And you can use the same remotes from the old system too. (There is only one GamePad per console; other players use the traditional Wii remotes that, more than likely, you already own.)
Unlike the original Wii, the Wii U is a high-definition system, delivering better graphics for the games. But it also means better video quality for people who use the system to watch Netflix or — new for the Wii U — Amazon Instant Video or Hulu. There is also special Nintendo TVii software built into the system that looks pretty slick. It pulls together information about your favorite shows, no matter where they are: on live television, on your DVR or on Internet services.
Better graphics mean that the Wii U is capable of playing some of the games that you previously had to own an Xbox 360 or a PlayStation 3 to experience, like Batman: Arkham City and Assassin’s Creed III. To underscore its push that this is not just a kiddie console, Nintendo has also lined up an exclusive survival horror game from Ubisoft,ZOMBIU.
Not long after the release of the original Wii in 2006, many gamers concluded that they really needed two consoles — an Xbox combined with a Wii under the television was dubbed the “Wii60” — to get the most of what gaming offered that year. The Wii U is Nintendo’s attempt to prove that, just maybe, at least some gamers can get by with only one.
O.K., but what if you don’t want to drop $350 on the gamer in your life? A gift card for the PLAYSTATION NETWORK or for XBOX LIVE can unlock much of the very best of what video games have offered in 2012: small, downloadable titles that feel more personal and meaningful than many of the big-budget sequels that flood the market.
JOURNEY and PAPO & YO, each a PlayStation exclusive, are my favorite games of the year so far. Journey is a quiet, mesmerizing pilgrimage to a mountaintop that feels like — seriously — an allegory for religious discovery. Papo & Yo is a moving, magical-realist fable about a boy and a monster who are stand-ins for a son and his alcoholic father. (Other new titles worth playing on the PlayStation Network include an updated, high-definition version of OKAMI and the fairy-tale-like UNFINISHED SWAN.)
Less emotional but still excellent games from 2012 that can be played on Xbox Live include FEZ and MARK OF THE NINJA. And THE WALKING DEAD, Telltale Games’ remarkable five-part series, which is creepier and more involving than the television series of the same title, is available for Xboxes, PlayStations and computers.
Which isn’t to say that your recipient won’t be perfectly happy with a popcorn shooter likeHALO 4 or CALL OF DUTY: BLACK OPS II. But BORDERLANDS 2, the cel-shaded shooter from Gearbox Software, is the looniest, goofiest, least serious way to blow things up in 2012. XCOM will appeal to players who like their action a little slower; its tactical, turn-based combat is a throwback to a previous video game era. AndDISHONORED is a stealthy assassination game for people who don’t normally like sneaking around quietly in their video games.
If you want to give gamers a real pay-it-forward present, pick up a copy of SPEC OPS: THE LINE and give it to someone. This deconstruction of the military shooter doesn’t quite fulfill the ambitions that Yager, the studio that developed the game, set for itself. But it tried something new and creative. In an industry filled with copycats and plagued byfinancial troubles, it would be nice if the game — which has sold poorly so far — were to do well enough so that sometime in 2014 we could play whatever Yager wants to do next.